Thursday, March 3, 2016

Art & Contemplation in Kansas

Elizabeth Duffy, accomplished Hoosier Catholic blogger at Patheos, travels to the outskirts of Wichita, Kansas, to see a puppet show produced by local artist/contemplative Jack Baumgartner.  Duffy, her husband, and their traveling counterparts.  They find themselves transfixed--by the show as well as by Baumgartner himself.  By turns an artist and musician as well as puppeteer, The bearded Baumgartner has developed a distinctive Christian counter-cultural style.  (He also excels at engraving and wood-working.) Check out his work here.  Be prepared to spend some time.) Duffy:

Perhaps it is his ability to talk about these spiritual longings openly, to use this particular language without irony, that draws people to Baumgartner and his work. I began to interview him by email a year prior to the performance. In person, he’s unpretentious, quick with a joke, easy to laugh, and a bit salty. In writing, his answers to my questions revealed mystical and poetic flights of
thought. These depths would surface periodically throughout the weekend, not only in his performance, but in his attention to each person there and his willingness to express why their presence was important to him.

Why does everyone love Jack Baumgartner? I knew why I did, not only for his competence in a broad range of artistic mediums—puppetry, painting, drawing, woodworking, music, and songwriting—but I’d managed to believe that his art spoke only to me. My reaction to it was so personal that it seemed no one else on earth could have experienced quite the same thing, but I was not alone.
“He was a hipster before hipsters even existed,” says Julia Anderson, possibly in reference to Baumgartner’s long, full beard and holistic lifestyle. No doubt beards have become a trademark accessory of stylish back-to-the-land craftsmen all over the insta-feeds, but Baumgartner’s oldest friends vouch that his has been there from the beginning—or at least since his first whiskering, probably sometime in the mid-nineties by my estimate. He is a slouched and rangy figure, with eyes lined from smiling or squinting and large, notched, and knobby hands, all of which give him the sage appearance of someone much older than thirty-nine. But his laugh is youthful and generous, and unlike most hipsters he maintains a fierce Christianity that supplies the driving force for his work and life, a wide-eyed approach to the things of God and a clear-eyed, unscandalized approach to the things of the world. All that is to say, his beard serves more of a priestly function than a fashionable one. It is a veil, and perhaps also a mark of voluntary poverty.

Duffy then describes Baumgartner's paintings.  Mostly of biblical images, Baumgartner's work displays an arresting balance of motion, intimacy, and compassion.   Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (told in Genesis 32) first brought the artist to Duffy's attention.

In so many renderings of the contest, the angel of God appears either overly muscular and aggressive, or else fey and defensive. The struggle is either too soft and dance-like to represent my struggles, or too hard, a couple of he-men duking it out to death rather than to a mutual blessing. In Baumgartner’s vision, Jacob wrestles a God who is both intimate and mysterious. At first it’s hard to tell who’s who. Jacob is unclothed, helmetless, and his energy supplies the force of the struggle. He moves with headstrong velocity into the guts of his unknown grappling partner, his toes stretched out behind him like the tail of a comet.
The angel, appearing almost winded, lurches forward into the embrace. In the same motion he reaches out to grab Jacob’s foot, forcing Jacob’s toes to flex as he lifts his knee in a way that protects it from a rock below. The biblical account tells us that Jacob’s hip is wrenched; here, the injury could result from an act of protection. Baumgartner’s angel accepts man’s challenge while simultaneously providing blessing, though Jacob is, as yet, unaware of how he is being saved.
In the painting, their collision causes a shattering of small particles that fly outward from the struggle like ripples from a stone thrown in water. It could be sweat or dust, or folds in the curtain that surrounds them and frames the action. The struggle between God and man, while intimate and personal, is never truly private. It has consequences that radiate out into the landscape in which it takes place.
At the edges of the scene, hands pull back a curtain. One releases a banner on which there are no words; the other points to the conflict. The hands suggest the wisdom of those who have gone before. “The struggle is like this,” they say. “God is not indifferent to you. He will fight with and for you at once, so that you may be blessed.”

Here's what she's writing about (credit:  Baumgartner by way of

This is one of those blog posts where both the blogger's own work and her subject elicit admiration and intrigue.  Duffy's sparse but passionate writing superbly fits Baumgartner's aesthetic--whether it's his paintings or his puppets.  Duffy goes on to discuss several other Baumgartner paintings as well as the puppet show she and her husband drove roughly seven hundred miles to watch.  She concludes with reflections on the artist's music (yes, and by the way, he's married--to a Presbyterian minister--and they have three children.  Very busy!)

In an era of sterile, synthetically smooth pop, Baumgartner’s music is something I have longed for without realizing it. It is worship music without the predictable upbeat promises and solutions of the corporate Christian music industry. His music expresses hunger rather than fulfillment, a constant longing for reconciliation and life in God.
It is this element of longing—in his music, his art, and in the way he lives—that makes Baumgartner such a compelling witness to his faith. The best teachers are perpetual students, always revising, always emerging. Baumgartner doesn’t claim to be an authority in any of his areas of practice. He dwells in the mystery at the heart of faith, and the outcome is illuminating.
Longing--now that's something that ought to resonate with a broad swath of postconciliar Catholics.  Dorothy Day's biography The Long Loneliness touched on the same theme, as did the novels of Walker Percy and the spiritual writings of Thomas Merton. Not surprisingly, Baumgartner's path to this flourishing aesthetic productivity involved Merton's works--and his life.  A hipster before it was cool, Baumgartner--and bloggers like Duffy--recognize a spiritual vitality that debunks the casual indictments of American Christianity's moribund state.

Read it all here.  And read more of Duffy's work on Image Journal, especially posts like this one.  Baumgartner's blog is here.

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